Book of the Month

AgBookClub 2022 Selections

New year, new reads! Here’s a preview of what’s to come with AgBookClub in 2022. We invite any and all to join!

The #AgBookClub Twitter chat takes place every Wednesday at 8pm Central time. (First time joining a Twitter chat? Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know.)


January

The first selection of the new year is a book published less than a year ago with a title perfect for the first pick of 2022. Here’s a brief synopsis of what to expect from Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat*+ by Robert Paarlberg.

Consumers want to know more about their food–including the farm from which it came, the chemicals used in its production, its nutritional value, how the animals were treated, and the costs to the environment. They are being told that buying organic foods, unprocessed and sourced from small local farms, is the most healthful and sustainable option. Now, Robert Paarlberg reviews the evidence and finds abundant reason to disagree. He delineates the ways in which global food markets have in fact improved our diet, and how “industrial” farming has recently turned green, thanks to GPS-guided precision methods that cut energy use and chemical pollution. He makes clear that America’s serious obesity crisis does not come from farms, or from food deserts, but instead from “food swamps” created by food companies, retailers, and restaurant chains. And he explains how, though animal welfare is lagging behind, progress can be made through continued advocacy, more progressive regulations, and perhaps plant-based imitation meat. He finds solutions that can make sense for farmers and consumers alike and provides a road map through the rapidly changing worlds of food and farming, laying out a practical path to bring the two together.



February

Our February pick is a new release from a dairy farmer in the Pacific Northwest. An Industry Worth Fighting For* by Derrick Josi with Steve Olivas. Derrick has been highly engaged in promoting agriculture through social media as TDF Honest Farming. 

A storm cuts through the placid Oregon skies. Not a meteorological event—rather, an onslaught aimed at destroying the livelihood of dairy farmers across America. Standing in the bull’s-eye is Derrick Josi, a fourth generation dairy farmer who has taken a stand against the lies, deceit, and personal attacks made by self-proclaimed activists across social media. This book offers readers a glimpse behind the curtain of a working dairy farm. Staying true to his charm and wit, Derrick does not shy away from sensitive topics. Rather, he presents reality in terms that are stark but sensitive…a balance as delicate as the lives for which he is responsible. This isn’t just the story of one dairy farmer; it is the story of an industry worth fighting for.


March

We live in a very diverse environment when it comes to opinions about various topics – food, favorite sports team, politics – you name it. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World*+ by Charles C. Mann, an Amazon Editors’ Pick, brings us two differing approaches on how to achieve the same goal. We’re hoping that this is a story of perspective and compromise. 

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493–an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change–grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.


April

It’s not often that Millennials are referred to their original generational name, Generation Y (Gen X and Gen Z make total sense now, right?). Eve Turow-Paul, author of A Taste of Generation YUM: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs and microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food* utilizes that perfectly with the title of this selection. Eve is a returning author on the AgBookClub book list – you may remember her from our January 2021 pick, Hungry, which was actually Eve’s second book.

There are roughly 80 million Millennials in America. According to research by BBDO, half of them identify as “foodies.” They buy organic groceries, fawn over Chemex coffee, Instagram images of pork belly and spend their recession-dented incomes on high-end meals out. Young adults with degrees from prestigious universities apply their learnings to harvests instead of hedge funds. Never before has a young generation paid this much attention to food. Starting back in 2012, Millennial, Eve Turow set out on a journey to understand why. Through interviews with a variety of Millennials as well as food luminaries—including Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle and more—Turow investigates the underlying drive for the Millennial obsession with food, and later looks at the role of Millennials in the future of food policy in America.


May

In another Amazon Editors’ Pick, we’re going to pivot this month to dive into a little history and evolution of an American icon: the fast food joint. Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast Food Kingdom*+ by Adam Chandler comes with several rave reviews on Amazon and a promising write-up:

Most any honest person can own up to harboring at least one fast-food guilty pleasure. In Drive-Thru Dreams, Adam Chandler explores the inseparable link between fast food and American life for the past century. The dark underbelly of the industry’s largest players has long been scrutinized and gutted, characterized as impersonal, greedy, corporate, and worse. But, in unexpected ways, fast food is also deeply personal and emblematic of a larger than life image of America.

With wit and nuance, Chandler reveals the complexities of this industry through heartfelt anecdotes and fascinating trivia as well as interviews with fans, executives, and workers. He traces the industry from its roots in Wichita, where White Castle became the first fast food chain in 1921 and successfully branded the hamburger as the official all-American meal, to a teenager’s 2017 plea for a year’s supply of Wendy’s chicken nuggets, which united the internet to generate the most viral tweet of all time.

Drive-Thru Dreams by Adam Chandler tells an intimate and contemporary story of America―its humble beginning, its innovations and failures, its international charisma, and its regional identities―through its beloved roadside fare.


June

Conversations, optimism and concern about gene editing, CRISPR, and other DNA-focused technologies have been growing over the last several years, particularly with the quick development of vaccines for COVID-19. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race*+ by Walter Isaacson follows the career and discoveries of a scientist who made significant strides towards the development of this vaccine (and other future applications) before it was even known that it was needed.

The bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns with a “compelling” (The Washington Post) account of how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses, and have healthier babies.

When Jennifer Doudna was in sixth grade, she came home one day to find that her dad had left a paperback titled The Double Helix on her bed. She put it aside, thinking it was one of those detective tales she loved. When she read it on a rainy Saturday, she discovered she was right, in a way. As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama behind the competition to discover the code of life. Even though her high school counselor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided she would.

Driven by a passion to understand how nature works and to turn discoveries into inventions, she would help to make what the book’s author, James Watson, told her was the most important biological advance since his codiscovery of the structure of DNA. She and her collaborators turned a curiosity of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA. Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions.

The development of CRISPR and the race to create vaccines for coronavirus will hasten our transition to the next great innovation revolution. The past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet. Now we are entering a life-science revolution. Children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study genetic code.

Should we use our new evolution-hacking powers to make us less susceptible to viruses? What a wonderful boon that would be! And what about preventing depression? Hmmm…Should we allow parents, if they can afford it, to enhance the height or muscles or IQ of their kids?

After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is an “enthralling detective story” (Oprah Daily) that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.


July

In this upcoming release (launching March 2022), journalist Tamar Haspel reports from her Cape Cod residence on her own experiences learning to raise and gather food grown from her own land, or “first hand food” in To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard*+.

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food meets Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in this part memoir, part how-to guide by Tamar Haspel (author of the Washington Post column Unearthed) about the unexpected joys of what she calls “first-hand food”–meals we grow, forage, fish, or even hunt from the world around us.

Journalist and self-proclaimed “crappy gardener” Tamar Haspel is on a mission: to show us that raising or gathering our own food is not as hard as it’s often made out to be. When she and her husband move from Manhattan to two acres on Cape Cod, they decide to adopt a more active approach to their diet: raising chickens, growing tomatoes, even foraging for mushrooms and hunting their own meat. They have more ambition than practical know-how, but that’s not about to stop them from trying…even if sometimes their reach exceeds their (often muddy) grasp.
 
With “first-hand food” as her guiding principle, Haspel embarks on a grand experiment to stop relying on experts to teach her the ropes (after all, they can make anything grow), and start using her own ingenuity and creativity. Some of her experiments are a rousing success (refining her own sea salt). Others are a spectacular failure (the turkey plucker engineered from an old washing machine). Filled with practical tips and hard-won wisdom, To Boldly Grow allows us to journey alongside Haspel as she goes from cluelessness to competence, learning to scrounge dinner from the landscape around her and discovering that a direct connection to what we eat can utterly change the way we think about our food–and ourselves.


August

In another Amazon Editors’ Pick, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth*+ by Sarah Smarsh gives us a new look into modern poverty in the United States. Here’s a synopsis:

An essential read for our times: an eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in America that will deepen our understanding of the ways in which class shapes our country and “a deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight”.*

Sarah Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side, and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working class Americans living in the heartland.

During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed the freedom of a country childhood, but observed the painful challenges of the poverty around her; untreated medical conditions for lack of insurance or consistent care, unsafe job conditions, abusive relationships, and limited resources and information that would provide for the upward mobility that is the American Dream. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves with clarity and precision but without judgement, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country.

Beautifully written, in a distinctive voice, Heartland combines personal narrative with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, challenging the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.


What piqued our interest in the September selection, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food*+ by Megan Kimble, was the challenge posed by the author of determining “what ‘unprocessed’ really means”. We know there continues to be a segment of the population who seeks to improve their diets by eliminating processed foods, and we found it intriguing that the author was able to do so while living within city limits (we hear that it’s difficult to do without a garden). We hope to learn from this selection how individuals pursuing these diets defined “processed” and what motivates them to pursue these diets.

In the tradition of Michael Pollan’s bestselling In Defense of Food comes this remarkable chronicle, from a founding editor of Edible Baja Arizona, of a young woman’s year-long journey of eating only whole, unprocessed foods—intertwined with a journalistic exploration of what “unprocessed” really means, why it matters, and how to afford it.

In January of 2012, Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she cared about where food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body: so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods. Unprocessed is the narrative of Megan’s extraordinary year, in which she milled wheat, extracted salt from the sea, milked a goat, slaughtered a sheep, and more—all while earning an income that fell well below the federal poverty line.

What makes a food processed? As Megan would soon realize, the answer to that question went far beyond cutting out snacks and sodas, and became a fascinating journey through America’s food system, past and present. She learned how wheat became white; how fresh produce was globalized and animals industrialized. But she also discovered that in daily life, as she attempted to balance her project with a normal social life—which included dating—the question of what made a food processed was inextricably tied to gender and economy, politics and money, work and play.

Backed by extensive research and wide-ranging interviews—and including tips on how to ditch processed food and transition to a real-food lifestyle—Unprocessed offers provocative insights not only on the process of food, but also the processes that shape our habits, communities, and day-to-day lives.


October

Our October selection is very highly rated on Amazon, earned the Amazon Editors’ Pick, and comes from “America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post). We hope that Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal*+ by Mary Roach brings us the hilarious reprieve we need while we’re in the throes of the harvest season this fall.

The irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside.

“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of―or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists―who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.

Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.


We’re switching things up as we head into the holiday season with Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants*+ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book explores historical teachings and knowledge of plants, remembering a time before we found modern replacements and substitutions for ways we used to use plants in our everyday lives.

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert).

Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, and as a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings―asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass―offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.



December

And a selection to wrap up 2022: Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America*+.

Think you know what rural America is like? Discover a plurality of perspectives in this enlightening anthology of stories that turns preconceptions on their head.

Gracie sees a chance of fitting in at her South Carolina private school, until a “white trash”–themed Halloween party has her steering clear of the rich kids. Samuel’s Tejano family has both stood up to oppression and been a source of it, but now he’s ready to own his true sexual identity. A Puerto Rican teen in Utah discovers that being a rodeo queen means embracing her heritage, not shedding it. . . .

For most of America’s history, rural people and culture have been casually mocked, stereotyped, and, in general, deeply misunderstood. Now an array of short stories, poetry, graphic short stories, and personal essays, along with anecdotes from the authors’ real lives, dives deep into the complexity and diversity of rural America and the people who call it home. Fifteen extraordinary authors—diverse in ethnic background, sexual orientation, geographic location, and socioeconomic status—explore the challenges, beauty, and nuances of growing up in rural America. From a mountain town in New Mexico to the gorges of New York to the arctic tundra of Alaska, you’ll find yourself visiting parts of this country you might not know existed—and meet characters whose lives might be surprisingly similar to your own.


* Kindle version available

+ Audible audiobook available

Have something you’d like to add to AgBookClub’s future reading list? Suggest a book here!

Happy Reading!

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