Friday, April 27, 2012

Booknote: White Bread

This is my review of the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf as I posted it to my GoodReads profile. This one falls within the microhistory genre-- those books that tell the history of one particular thing or item, but also take you on a broader learning experience. It is a genre of books that I enjoy quite a bit. I think my four readers here might find it interesting as well.

Now, let's get the disclosure note out of the way to keep the FTC (also known as "The Man") happy. I won this book via a giveaway from the GoodReads First Reads program. No, no one paid me to review it though.

And finally, before the review, for reference purposes, here is a small list of books that I think would make good read-a-likes. In other words, if you liked this one, you may also like these. The books I am listing are books that I have actually read. You can find my reviews of these books on my GoodReads profile:

  • Paul R. Mullins, Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut. (I also shared this review in my blog here).
  • Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed.
  • Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations.(I also shared this review in my blog here).
And now, the review itself:

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought LoafWhite Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting little book. It is indeed a social history, as it looks at how white bread has been seen in society, and it also looks at what that mass produced white loaf says about us. How does the white bread illustrate our aspirations, dreams, and hopes as a society? What does it say about class? Where do you belong if you eat it or not? Those are the kinds of questions this book strives to answer.

There are various ways to look at white bread, and those ways reflect where our society has been and where it will go. White bread has been a symbol of wealth, and now (at least in the U.S.), it has become a symbol of poverty, of white trash. How did that happen? This book goes over that. The author looks at the various social dreams that white bread has come to embody. There is the dream of cleanliness and industrial efficiency; the dream of being able to feed more people and, hopefully end poverty (or at least curb it; the dream of military and defense of the nation, where you needed well-fed soldiers and members of society, going along with the importance of nutrition. In other words, you wanted good nutrition because it was the patriotic thing to do, and so on. In looking at each dream or stage, white bread embodies those dreams and symbols.

The author also asks some hard questions. The one that stayed with me, a question I often ponder, is the one of elitism in high end and/or organic foods. Sure, you can get high end fresh baked bread, but only if you have access to a community bakery that draws on high end supplies for its bread baking operation. Poor people in essence are stuck with white bread because that is all they can afford. While there is some critique of this, I am not sure any real solutions are offered other than we need to be aware. Then again, it must be noted the author is one of those people who can afford to buy that high end whole grain bread. Not something to hold against the author, but it has to be considered; it's where he is coming from. The issue of access to good food for all is an important one, and it goes beyond just bread, but illuminating this is the story of white bread.

The book is a fairly easy read. You do get some interesting history of the U.S., history of immigrants, society, so on as well with the bread history. This is a trait of a microhistory, though this one is more social than historical. You get stories of the dynasties that created the great bread making industries. I particularly found interesting the story of Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican baking conglomerate that owns a good amount of brands most people in the U.S. think of as "American." I was aware of it (as a Latino, I am fairly aware of Bimbo), but I am willing to bet many readers may find that interesting as well.

Overall, this is an interesting book. You can read it a bit at a time, and you can learn a few things along the way. I do think it will give you a better appreciation not just of white bread, but of bread and the dynamics of feeding society.

Disclosure note: I won this book from a GoodReads First Reads giveaway.

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Reading about the reading life, April 27. 2012

A few more items on reading and the reading life I have read recently, or that I have pondered about recently.

  • Via Berfrois, a post on travel writing, tourism, and how traveling usually means often seeing one part of the place.  What the tourists often get is a performance, a show, an illusion of the tourist attraction. Things like the poor of a nation overseas are rarely if ever seen. They are also missing from travel narratives. This is a nice little reflective piece. 
  • Via The New York Times, it turns out that India is "one of the best English-language book markets in the world." Publishers large and small are heading there, in part hoping for new markets and income given the chaos e-books is causing them in their home nations. This also means more literary agencies are sprouting and thriving. Another reason: demographic changes, rising literacy and the increase of Indians speaking English, the lingua franca of economic growth." 
  • It seems that taking a trip from mainland China into Hong Kong to buy books censored by the Chinese government is a big business in Hong Kong. An article entitled "Beating China's Book Bans in Hong Kong" was published by the Asia Sentinel. I find interesting the ways people find workarounds and how they adapt in order to get the reading that they want. You can censor all you want. People will get it somehow. 
  • A nice gallery of book sculptures. Basically, the artist takes old books, that likely would have been pulped or ended up in a landfill, and makes beautiful sculptures with it. Find the gallery here at The Telegraph (UK). A statement from the artist can be found here.  A hat tip to 3 Quarks Daily over here.
  • Via the blog Papeles Perdidos, a discussion of the apparent curse of Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest (Spanish language article). The curse is that the novel, unlike others by the same author, has not been made into a movie. It discusses reasons and goes over some of the noir genre. Article comes in context of a new Spanish language translation of the complete works featuring the Continental Op by Hammett. 
  • Via The Christian Science Monitor, a defense on why we do need indie bookstores.  A bit from the article: "What makes excellent booksellers excellent is that they read a ton, they are surrounded by and have at their disposal people who do the same, and that they are skilled at the practice of giving recommendations.  Make no mistake, giving recommendations is a skill. Just ask any master sommelier (or customer who has had the misfortune of interacting with a lousy bookseller).  You have to listen to what a customer says about their tastes, interests, and desires and discern from that what it is they’re looking for, what will most satisfy them right now.  It is a delicate process of matchmaking." Gee, that sounds just like Reader's Advisory, a skill your local librarian has, and you can certainly use when you visit your local public library. I am not saying to abandon your indie bookstores; far from it, I love indie bookstores, and we need more good ones in Tyler, Texas. But hey, you certainly should take a trip to your local library too, especially if your budget is a little tight.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Booknote: Lost Kingdom

Sharing my review that I posted on GoodReads for the book. To keep the FTC (a.k.a. "The Man") happy, as noted in the review, I did win the book in a GoodReads First Reads program giveaway.

Before the review, let me make a brief note, mostly for reference, of other books I have read that may have similar appeal. This is mostly the reader's advisor in me. You can find the books in my GoodReads profile shelves:

  • Hardy Green, The Company Town
  • Greg Grandin, Fordlandia
  • Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew

 Lost Kingdom: The Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial AdventureLost Kingdom: The Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will start by saying that I was in the mood to read a good, solid history book, and this definitely fit the bill. In addition, I did not know much about the history of Hawaii prior to it being annexed by the U.S., and this book did a great job in filling that gap for me. The neat thing about reading it is that it "reads" like a fiction piece in the sense that it has a good narrative, and it will engage you.

Siler's book tells the tale of Hawaii from the time when Cook landed on the islands that were known as the Sandwich Islands up until the point when annexation occurs. It is a very interesting tale, but it is also a tale of intrigue, a lot of political play and maneuvering, and often tragic moments. Indeed the title is very appropriate for in annexation a kingdom was lost. That the U.S. can brag it has a royal palace on U.S. soil does not convey the conflicts and imperialistic schemes that came to pass for that to happen. In this regard, the book also provides a lesson in early American imperialism. This is a time when the famous declaration of "the frontier is closed" happened in the U.S., so Americans were seeking new places to expand in terms of territory and trade. The Hawaiian Islands were a very alluring place to expand. Well, they were alluring to many; even some in the U.S. did debate on whether to annex or not, often depending on what interests they were trying to safeguard. The big interest that seems to loom large in the story is that of sugar. Siler shows us how the sugar trade played such a central part in the story, shaping the monarchy as well as the drive to annexation.

The book has a simple organization. It runs two parallel stories, so to speak. One is the story of the royal dynasties leading to Queen Lili'u, the last monarch of the Kalakua House and the last monarch of Hawaii. The other story is the story of Hawaii and the sugar barons who shaped the nation and the economy of Hawaii in ways that no armed force could do. In essence, the sugar interests were the real rulers and owners of Hawaii, even to the point that the monarchy was in heavy debt to them. And yet, towards the end, Queen Lili'u finds a very unlikely ally, one I did not expect, but when you realize much of this is about watching out for your interests, the alliance made sense. I will let you read the book to find out who it was.

The book displays excellent research. It is clear the author did a lot of work and spent a lot of time in archives seeking out material to write the history. She draws heavily on the diary of the Queen, a woman who was intelligent, cultured, and a song composer who was committed to being a true chiefess to her people. The author also draws on various other sources as well. The book features extensive endnotes and bibliography (in fact, this research material does take about a third of the book at the end). The book also features a good set of photos and illustrations as supplementary material. I think the visual materials provide a nice visual element to the story.

Maybe the only reason I gave it four stars out of five is because it left me wanting more. What happens after annexation? There was a bit of closure in the epilogue though. Maybe that is another topic for another book? I will add that for me, being familiar with the Spanish-American War, this book added a bit of a new perspective to that part of history as well given Hawaii did play a strategic role for the U.S. as a "coaling" and supply station on their way to the Philippines.

Overall, a neat and interesting read. If you are looking for a good history book with a good narrative, this may be a good choice for you. If you want to learn more about Hawaii and go past the usual images of Pearl Harbor, the tourist attraction and volcanoes, this is a book for you. And if you want a book on a chapter of American history and its imperialism, then this is a good book for that as well.

Final note: To make the FTC happy, I am disclosing I won this book in a GoodReads First Reads giveaway. (Though between us here, I had noted this book earlier as one to read, so winning it was a neat thing).

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