Genoways memorably captures the difficult lives nonindustrial farmers lead in order to feed the world.

THIS BLESSED EARTH

A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY FARM

Journalist Genoways (The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, 2014, etc.) returns to further study farming in America.

The author’s latest book is quieter and more meditative, as he chronicles his immersion in the seasons of a Nebraska family trying to survive on their family acres. Some of the mood conveyed by the up-close narrative reflects the quietness of desperation, as unpredictable weather, international market fluctuations, the changing practices of seed suppliers, the availability of water for irrigation, and government agricultural supports conspire to create greater-than-usual questions about whether patriarch Rick Hammond, his daughter, Meghan Hammond, and her husband, Kyle Galloway, can pay their bills in rural Nebraska. Genoways is a Nebraskan but did not grow up on a farm. He is a master at portraying the unique qualities of this Midwestern state but a novice about the intricacies of earning a living as a family farmer. Rick, Meghan, and Kyle exhibited remarkable patience schooling the author, allowing him to participate in their activities and record their thoughts over the months. Most of the book focuses on the farming of corn and soybeans, but Genoways also devotes interludes to the very different pursuit of raising beef cattle. The narrative is more or less chronological, following the seasons, but the author occasionally diverges to explore the characters of his protagonists and of farmers in general. For example, Rick can be generous to a fault with fellow farmers yet simultaneously competitive about crop growth—in this zero-sum game, every neighbor who sells higher might mean Rick selling slightly lower. Meghan’s back story is especially fascinating, as the author chronicles why she intended to leave farming but ended up pulled back in to the profession.

Genoways memorably captures the difficult lives nonindustrial farmers lead in order to feed the world.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-29257-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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